Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Getting to Know Melanie Denard

Melanie Denard is an independent artist on a small label who is already making a name for herself through her powerful personality-infused vocal performances and her distinct country-soul musical style. Her first album Dare to Live was released just last year. In the time since the release, Melanie has continued performing and working toward her goal of achieving household-name recognition as a country artist. This talented artist recently took the time to have a chat with me about her musical style and the career she hopes to create.

Ben: Would you like to start by telling a little bit about your background, and your early experiences in singing?

Melanie: Oh gosh, how much time do we have?

Ben: We have time!

Melanie: Well, let’s see. I’ve always known from an early age that I wanted to sing. It’s something that was definitely a God-given talent. There’s a lot of musical talent in my family. I have an uncle that’s in a gospel quartet. My grandmother sang and played guitar. My brother writes. So I get it honest. I started out singing in church, and then from there in high school I was in a national touring company and toured the world pretty much, doing performances. Once out of high school, I was in an opera company for a few years, and then after that I joined some bands. You know, just club bands, played in a Southern rock band and a country band, and then got a job working at a Fortune 500 company, kept the band thing going, and then met my manager, which is why I’m sitting here today in Nashville! It’s been a wonderful musical journey my whole life.

Ben: I understand you’re known for putting your own signature style on a song, or “Melanizing” it as they say?

Melanie: Oh, that’s right! You did your homework!

Ben: So how do you do that?

Melanie: Well, that’s a hard question to answer. I’ve spent much of my life doing a lot of cover tunes. I just try to take the song and make it my own, and just put a little soul in it, and I guess that’s what they call “Melanize.” My manager came up with that word. It actually fits. Yeah, I do that. I just make songs my own.

Ben: I understand your style draws on a mix of influences. How would you describe your style?

Melanie: Country-soul! A lot of soul influence, a lot of blues. I grew up lovin’ Wynonna Judd. I think our voices are really similar. She’s a big influence of mine. Elvis Presley – I’ve always loved him. It’s just a style I sort of developed. When I moved here to Nashville, I tried to sort of lose some of that to be more commercial, but then I realized that I can’t. That’s why I really love the producer I met up with, Dan Frizsell, because he let me be me, but he kind of kept me commercial for country.

Ben: When I was listening to your song “All I Ever Did Was Love You,” I got a bit of a “No One Else On Earth” vibe from it.

Melanie: Oh yeah? Well, good! That’s a compliment! Thank you!

Ben: It absolutely is. I love that song.

Melanie: Well, thank you. That’s one of the songs on the album that most describes me and my singing style.

Ben: Since you’re known for being an energetic live performer, what would you say makes for a good live show?

Melanie: You just have to keep the audience interested. I go see artists perform, and there’s milling around the room and people are talking and not really paying attention. A lot of times I notice that when I step onstage and I start singing that all eyes are on me, and that’s what I try to do – just enthrall people and feed off of their energy. It gives me more energy and allows me to bring more passion and excitement to the music. I do that – I get people’s attention.

Ben: Any artists in particular who serve as role models or influences for you both in style and in performance?

Melanie: Well, Wynonna of course. I grew up loving her. Bonnie Raitt – huge influence on me as far as the blues aspect goes. I like all music. I grew up listening to all music. My daddy liked country music, and that’s how I was introduced to country music at a very young age, and I’ve listened to it ever since.

Ben: I understand you’ve also covered the Dusty Springfield hit “Son of a Preacher Man.” Would you like to tell a little bit about your connection to that song, and how you put your own spin on it?

Melanie: That’s a song that I’ve always sang in bands and whatnot, and when I moved to Nashville in my first year of living here, there was a competition that GAC announced for the next video star. They had a video contest. That’s one of the songs that was on the list of songs to do, so I picked it because I knew it already and knew it well. That’s actually the first song that I recorded with my producer, before I ever started the Dare to Live album. We did “Son of a Preacher Man,” and I told him I wanted it to be a country version of it, so we put some fiddle on there and a little bit of steel. It turned out really, really well. Nothing happened with the video contest, but once I finished the album, I decided since “Son of a Preacher Man” turned out so well, I’d like to throw it on the album, and I’m so glad I did. It has proven to be a great idea because on the radio tours and everything I’ve gotten so much great response from that song. Everybody just loves that song.

Ben: It’s definitely very well-suited to that country-soul kind of style.

Melanie: Oh yeah!

Ben: And it’s like the country elements don’t seem slapped-on. It seems more natural than on some cross-genre covers.

Melanie: Right. It’s a great song. I’m glad I put it on the album.

Ben: So do you have any favorites among the songs you’ve recorded for your album?

Melanie: Well, I didn’t write any of the songs on the album. I’d like to take credit for the songs, but I was pitched so many great songs by wonderful well-known songwriters here in Nashville, I just couldn’t pass a lot of them up. I do write. Hopefully on the next album I put out I’ll have some co-writes and writes on it. But it was very important to me to be able to relate to the songs as if I had written them so I could bring more passion to it, and I think I did a really good job of doing that.

Ben: Definitely. Are there any songs you wish you had had a part in writing?

Melanie: Gosh, all of ‘em! [Laughs] “Dare to Live,” I’d have to say, the title track from the album, because I picked that song mainly for what it talks about and what it says. Because it’s my story. I risked everything, moved here, and quit my job and sold my house in Georgia just trying to do this thing. I’d have to say “Dare to Live” if I had to pick one, but I wish I had written them all!

Ben: Do you have any career goals that you hope to accomplish as a country artist?

Melanie: Well, I hope to have a sold-out show at the Bridgestone Arena this time next year! [Laughs]

Ben: I’ll buy a ticket!

Melanie: I’m just blessed to able to follow my dream. I live my dream every day. I’m just gonna do what I do. Hopefully the major goal is to get a major label deal. I have a label showcase coming up this year in April, and I’m very excited about that. I’m gonna start touring with the band. We’ll try to do the casino circuit and try to get out there and perform! I just hope I get a major label deal and one day be a household name.

Ben: One more question - What is country music to Melanie Denard?

Melanie: Oh gosh, it’s my life! I grew up listening to it. I can relate to it, as a lot of people can. When I hear country music, it reminds me of growing up with my dad and riding in his truck and listening to country music when he’d pick me up from school. It’s my life. It’s what I do, and I hope that one day the world will know who Melanie Denard is, and love my music as much as I love singing it to people.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dierks Bentley, "Am I the Only One"

Joy.  Another "Sideways."  "Am I the Only One" who thinks that Dierks just might be selling himself short here?

He made a pretty bold move in releasing a bluegrass album while his career was at a commercial high point, and daring country radio to play something different than the usual fluff.  But after the disappointing chart performance of the album's two singles, Dierks has gone back to fitting in and playing it safe.

While the lyrics could use some added cleverness, I could have gotten past that if Dierks sounded like he even cared about the song himself.  Instead, he delivers a bland and lifeless lead vocal, and then relies on just about every lame crutch imaginable to make up for it.  That means laying on the overcooked electric guitar solos, and finishing it off with an uber-cheesy sing-along chorus at the end.

One could offer the easy-out argument that it's 'just a fun party song,' but that would be irrevelent.  Party songs don't always have to be as uninspired and one-dimensional as this one is.  At any rate, "Am I the Only One" represents a sudden and dramatic artistic nosedive for Dierks, who has abruptly gone from beautiful bluegrassy goodness to releasing one of the worst singles of his career.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Friday, March 25, 2011

Chris Young, "Tomorrow"

With the success of his number one hit "Gettin' You Home (The Black Dress Song)," Chris Young gained entry into the relatively small group of commercially-successful mainstream artists waving the banner for traditional country music, even as the country-pop and country-rock subgenres continually threaten to crowd it out of radio playlists.  As much as we love his steel-laden musical style and emotive deep-throated drawl, he has often had one recurring problem - The quality of his lyrics doesn't always measure up with the other factors.  Fortunately, the first single from his upcoming third album just might be the beginning of an upward climb.

"Tomorrow" tells the story of a relationship that is clearly not working out.  Though it seems a split is imminent, Chris implores his soon-to-be-ex-lover for one last fling before the flame is extinguished for good.  The lyrics give the listener insight into the conflicting emotions of the narrator as his romantic attachment struggles against his better judgment.  It's clear that the situation has been going on for quite some time as Chris tells himself that "Tomorrow I'm gonna let you go and walk away like every day I said I would."  Such sentiments cause us to wonder if we really believe that the narrator will leave like he says he will, and we might wonder if he even believes himself.  He constantly reiterates his determination to end the doomed relationship, saying that "Tomorrow, you won't believe it/ But when I pass by your house, I won't stop/ No matter how much I want to."

It's a beautiful lyric with organic layers beneath the surface, and an added level of maturity.  Chris sounds more invested in the lyrics than ever before in a performance that has just enough restraint to convey the narrator's frustration without beating us over the head with it.  A crying fiddle and a wailing steel guitar echo his pain and heartache.  Without a doubt, "Tomorrow" is Chris Young's finest single to date, with a strong lyric and a deeply emotional performance making it an obvious winner.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Album Review: The Roys - Lonesome Whistle

Lonesome Whistle, The Roys' first album release for Rural Rhythm records, chugs out of the station this week.  On this charming 11-track set, siblings Lee and Elaine Roy pour their voices into a set of beautifully written songs about the values they cherish.  But the sentiments don't come in the form of the hollow cliches that plague the music of mainstream country radio.  Each track fleshes out its theme with a well-defined narrative while Lee and Elaine deliver the verses in tight harmonies that ring with sincerity.

There are moments when Lonesome Whistle touches on religious themes, but it does so without sounding arrogant or preachy.  A trio of Lee and Elaine's musical heroes - Ricky Skaggs, Sharon and Cheryl White - lend their voices to the track "That's What Makes It Love," which describes examples of love demonstrated in action, and points to Christ's sacrifice as the ultimate example.  Another highlight is "I Wonder What God's Thinking," which is a man's reflections on what effect mankind's follies must have on his Creator.  With images of poverty and genocide leading in to questions such as "When the rain falls from heaven, is it the tears from His eyes/ Is an angry clap of thunder His voice crying why," the sad lyrics carry a heavy weight of poignancy.  In "Give a Ride to the Devil," a man reflects on his youth and relates experiences that have taught him the importance of resisting temptation.  The song features a memorable hook of "If you give a ride to the devil/ Someday he's gonna wanna drive."

In addition to the reflective moments, Lonesome Whistle also includes a fair share of fun banjo-laced barn burners such as the lighthearted love tale "My Oh My How Time Flies."  A sprightly tempo and upbeat melody belie dark and forlorn lyrics on "Nothin' I Can Do About It Now," as the narrator weeps over his helplessness in stopping his woman from leaving him on a train out of town.  In a similar vein, the title track tells of a woman who says goodbye to her man as she leaves on a train to go to war.  When he later takes his "last ride," his memory is forever linked with the sound of that "Lonesome Whistle."

One track that doesn't quite measure up to the standard of the rest of the album is the woman's anthem "Trailblazer."  Lyrics such as "Her restless spirit leads the way/ It's time to take that leap of faith/ Chasing dreams that just won't wait" aren't particularly interesting, to say the least.  But the track's primary weakness is that fails to place its character in a lifelike setting, and doesn't bring her down to a believable, relatable, human level.  Instead, she seems like a vague and unfathomable figure.

Fortunately, that one weaker moment is dwarfed in comparison with the solid songwriting that dominates the album.  The album succeeds on a sonic level as well, with producers Andy Leftwich and The Roys themselves backing the performances with delightful bluegrass instrumentation (including Leftwich on fiddle, Mark Fain on bass, Randy Kohrs on dobro, and Cody Kilby on acoustic guitar).  Overall, the album is full of great songs and strong performances, making The Roys debut on Rural Rhythm Records an impressive one indeed.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

EP Review: Ashton Shepherd - Look It Up

Despite the rather bland first single "Look It Up," I actually had somewhat high hopes for Ashton Shepherd's new EP, as well as for her upcoming second album Where Country Grows.  Ashton is definitely a talented vocalist with a knack for delivering emotive and expressive vocal performances accented by her down-home Alabama twang.  In addition, her traditional-leaning country style has made her a welcome radio presence to devotees of traditional country music.  But while this new EP Look It Up does showcase a few glimmers of the Ashton Shepherd we know and love, it is weighed down by one gigantic problem - too many cliches!

The title track and current Top 30 hit "Look It Up" finds Ashton dwelling on well-worn phrasing related to the subject of infidelity, and delivering it the form of rather tedious dictionary definitions.  "Where Country Grows" contains a small amount of rather appealing imagery of Southern country life, but we have to swallow a good-sized pile of lyrical formulas (church, Mama, soldiers, etc) along with it. 

"Beer On a Boat" is a lighthearted summer tune that I would fully expect to see single release come the warmer months.  It has a fairly simple lyric about (surprise!) drinking beer on a boat, but with a fun melody and fiddle-laced production, it does what it does well.  The EP closes with the typical small-town ditty "More Cows Than People."  It has a clever title hook, but that hook is the only clever thing about it.  It spends most of the time on safe and predictable images of churches and tractors.

Though Ashton's delivery of "Look It Up" begs for an extra dose of spunk, the EP as a whole finds her in fine voice.  The problem is that she simply needs better songs.  Each song on Look It Up sounds carefully tailored to fit in with a common country radio stereotype, making it seem like a pandering effort.  The EP as a whole finds a promising artist singing songs that are beneath her talent, which adds up to an awfully disappointing preview of the upcoming album.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Martina McBride, "Teenage Daughters"

For the past decade, this four-time CMA Female Vocalist Award winner has mostly been delivering commercially safe offerings such as power ballads, female empowerment anthems, and songs of domestic bliss.  The title of her new single may have had you expected one from the latter category.  But in fact, "Teenage Daughters" - Martina's first release for Republic Nashville - is perhaps her edgiest single since the late nineties.

Martina draws on her own mothering experiences in this quirky, witty portrayal of the struggles of raising teenage girls.  She describes the shift in the parent-child relationship as teenage girls enter the phase in which they would like for their parents to disappear out of their lives, also addressing their persistent quest for independence. 

Releasing a song like this is a gutsy move at a time when mainstream country music is becoming increasingly obsessed with a youthful image.  These days, young platinum blonde sorority girls are often favored over veteran female hitmakers such as Martina.  But instead of trying to act younger than she really is (a la Reba McEntire), Martina releases a song that unashamedly and unmistakably identifies her as a member of the over-40 crowd, and addresses the issues faced by adult women, which makes the song feel real and authentic.

Good as the song is, however, the treatment leaves a small stain on it.  Martina's vocal delivery sounds a bit affected, as if imitating the voice of another singer.  To say the least, she doesn't quite sound like herself.  That characteristic, along with some rather intrustive-sounding guitar work, takes some of the shine off of "Teenage Daughters."

Fortunately, the song triumphs thanks to its deftly accurate and subtly charming treatment of its subject matter, as well as the fact that it resists the temptation to devolve into saccharinity.  In some ways, it could have been even better, but it's still a strong single in its own right.  It displays a newfound level of inspiration in the artist delivering it, and hints at the possibility of more good things in store on Martina's forthcoming album.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Eric Church, "Homeboy"

After going Top 20 with "Smoke a Little Smoke," Eric Church churns out a new single offering that attempts to be inspiring, strains to be clever, and ultimately ends up a step down from all the other one-dimensional anthems espousing the country lifestyle at the expense of the urban lifestyle. 

Eric assumes the character of a rural small town dweller supposedly urging a rebellious youth to readjust his wayward life course.  Though the lyrics briefly mention some cocky behavior ("Heard you cussed out mama, pushed daddy around"), the main focus is on an urban lifestyle, as if hip-hop culture is to blame for all of the evils in the world.  What is the alternative solution Eric suggests?  He superficially asserts that the young man would be better off "sittin' on the gate of a truck by the lake/ With your high school flame on one side, ice cold beer on the other."

It's hard to see what power pick-up trucks, high-school flames, and beer have to keep a young man on the straight and narrow.  In effect, all Eric really says here is "Don't be a city boy.  Be a country boy."  As much as we may love our small-town country life, let's be humble about it - It's not for everybody.  The end effect of Eric's sentiments is nothing more than exalting one culture over another.

Regrettably, the problems don't stop there.  The song is soured further by the way its narrator implores the said youth in a superior, condescending manner, particularly by addressing him as "boy."  As an extra negative, "Homeboy" isn't even pleasing on a musical level, with a cacophonous mishmash of an arrangement serving as an enormously annoying distraction.  Thus, the single not only fails, but fails spectacularly.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Retro Album Review: Reba McEntire - For My Broken Heart

It was on this day twenty years ago that country superstar Reba McEntire, in the midst of all her critical and commercial success as a country artist, found herself in her "darkest hour" as a tragic aviation accident claimed the lives of eight members of her touring band - Chris Austin, Kirk Cappello, Joey Cigainero, Paula Kay Evans, Jim Hammon, Terry Jackson, Anthony Saputo, and Micheal Thomas.  Reba reacted by pouring all of her grief and heartache into her music.  The result was one of the greatest albums of her career.

Reba's sixteenth studio album For My Broken Heart, dedicated to her deceased road band, was released in October 1991.  In the liner notes, we find Reba's mission statement for the album:

"It seems your current emotional status determines what music you'd like to hear.  That's what happened on the song selection for this album.  If for any reason you can relate to the emotion packed into these songs, I hope it's a form of healing for all our broken hearts."

A huge critical and commercial success, the album became one of the era's best-selling albums by a female artist with sales of over two million. In addition, For My Broken Heart produced some of Reba's best-known classic hits.  As the album begins, a long and somber string section intro sets the tone for what is to follow, leading into the opening title track.  "For My Broken Heart," also the album's chart-topping first single, walks listeners through the healing journey of a brokenhearted narrator who comes to the sobering realization that "The world ain't gonna stop for my broken heart."  The beautifully emotional lyrics, penned by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer, allude to the narrator's ability to overcome her hurt and move on with her life, but they do so in a way that does not lessen the song's emotional impact by downplaying the depth of her heartbreak.

Also featured on the album is Reba's smash hit "Is There Life Out There," in which a wife and mother begins to wonder if she is missing out on anything in life.  This was a song that connected with many women on a deep level, as did the accompanying music video, which portrayed the song's character pursuing and earning a college diploma  Though the dialogue-heavy video was criticized by CMT for supposedly putting "message ahead of music," its spot-on rendering of the song's theme won it an ACM Award for Video of the Year.  The video was adapted into the 1994 CBS television movie Is There Life Out There?, in which Reba portrayed the lead character. 

Impossible to forget is Reba's epic performance of the Vicki Lawrence pop hit "The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia," in which Reba effortlessly eases into her character as she delivers the chilling tale of murder against the swampy, bluesy production.  The single finished it's chart run at an unremarkable peak of #12, but the song nonetheless lives on as one of Reba's career-defining hits.  After "Georgia" saw the end of its radio run, Reba made a swift return to the Top Ten with the beautifully-performed ballad "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" - a story of an emotionally-distant father who dies without his daughter ever hearing him say "I love you."

Each track on the album approaches the theme of heartache from its own unique angle, making For My Broken Heart an album that is thematically consistent from beginning to end.  "He's In Dallas" relates a woman's regret-filled story of the dissolution of her once-happy marriage.  In "Buying Her Roses," a wronged woman attempts to make sense of her tangled emotions, and tries to determine what she should do in response to her husband's flagrant philandering.  In the album's penultimate track, a woman expresses her regret over letting love slip through her fingers in "I Wouldn't Go That Far."

Another remarkable characteristic of this album is that it addresses topics that are out of the ordinary realm of country music lyrics, but that carry no less emotional weight.  The fiddle-laced ballad "Bobby" is a sad but heartwarming story-song of a man's unwavering devotion to a woman, unhampered by fear of people misunderstanding him for the way he demonstrates it, and ultimately leading him to end her life.  "All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)" is a tearjerking tale of an aged woman who resides in a care facility, and who keeps in constant expectation of a visitor who all others know will never come.

The album closes with one of the most personal songs of Reba's career.  The sparsely-produced "If I Had Only Known" puts into song a woman's feelings as she contemplates the death of a loved one, tortured by the thought that she may have taken her loved one for granted.  Of all the songs on the album, "If I Had Only Known" is the one that is the most closely connected to Reba's grief over her devastating personal losses.  The song was never released as a single, but it did chart at #73 from unsolicited airplay.  Due to her deep emotional connection to the song, Reba has said that she could only bear to record the song in a single take, and has performed the song live only on very rare occasions.

In summary, this is undoubtedly very special album.  Every track is a great song in its own right, with each lyric evoking a unique emotional response in the listener.  Being the twenty year anniversary of the disaster that inspired the album, this is a fitting time to revisit this remarkable work of art.  This record is not the result of an artist pandering to the tastes of country radio, or struggling to fit in with current trends.  This record is the work of an artist bringing out her deepest emotions, and channeling them into achingly sincere performances.  The greatest albums in country music come from such deep places, and For My Broken Heart is doubtlessly one such album.

(...which, unfortunately, is as high as the scale goes)


Monday, March 14, 2011

Brad Paisley, "Old Alabama" (featuring Alabama)

My interest level in Brad Paisley's new album quickly plummetted when I heard the first single and title track "This Is Country Music."  Instead of restoring my interest, the disappointing second single only threatens to kill it stone dead.  "Old Alabama" is meant as a tribute to the legendary country super-group Alabama, but poor execution makes it come off more like a parody.

The song's verses are unimportant.  The song exists for the sole purpose of throwing together some Alabama references, sampling their hit "Mountain Music," and having Randy Owen sing a guest vocal.  Obviously, it begs the question of "Why not just listen to Alabama?" (I asked a similar question of Kid Rock's "All Summer Long" - Why not just listen to "Sweet Home Alabama"?) Brad brings very little of his own style and personality to either the lyric or performance - He just sounds like he's trying to be Alabama.  When he goes so far as to start singing about "love in the first degree-yee-YEEEE," it just sounds awkward and jarring to listen to.

Is this what an Entertainer of the Year-winning artist's career has come down to?  Can he only sing songs about other songs instead of making a statement of his own?  Such uninspired material does not offer much hope of Brad's music becoming interesting again, nor does it offer an enticing preview of the album to follow.

Hey, here's an idea - Let's just listen to the real "Mountain Music" song instead.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Sunday, March 13, 2011


Here's the random topic that's on my mind today:  What is a great hook?

What raised this question in my blogger mind?  It first came up when I read Jim Malec's review of Heidi Newfield's "Stay Up Late" on American Noise a few months ago, in which he cited Heidi's hit "Johnny and June" as an example of a song that has a great hook:

"“And when you go, I wanna go too/Like Johnny and June” is an enormously simple hook, but Newfield belts it with devastating conviction.... That’s a desire that transcends a piece-by-piece analyses of the lyrics and what they say. That’s what great hooks do—they communicate something beyond just what they mean. “Johnny and June” communicates an essential, fundamental desire—and that makes us want to blast it from our radios for the world to hear. We all want a love like Johnny and June, and when we hear that hook we say, “Yes! That’s me!” It’s not a cerebral thought, but a feeling that comes from a much deeper place."

Just out of curiosity, I looked up the word "hook" in the dictionary.  Besides the obvious literal meaning, the word was defined as "something intended to attract and ensnare," which is most often how we use the word when discussing popular music.  In that sense, a great hook could come in the form of something as simple as a few catchy instrumental chords.  But a hook in its most meaningful form is often a simple line in a song that manages to channel thoughts and emotions beyond what the words themselves mean, thus connecting with listeners on a deep level.

The song "Anywhere" from Sara Evans new album Stronger is a foremost example of a song that desperately needs a better hook.  The song has its share of weaknesses, suffering from a few cliche lyrics, but I found it was the lack of a great hook that mainly proved to be the song's downfall, such that even a great voice like Sara's is unable to save it.  The lyrics attempt to convey the joy and excitement of a carefree romance, but the hook "We can go anywhere" means exactly what it says on paper - nothing more and nothing less.  Such a hook can only create a black-and-white picture of its theme, without being able to supply color.

An ideal contrasting example is Jo Dee Messina's beloved hit "Heads Caroline, Tails California," which deals with the same theme as "Anywhere," but with a much better title hook.  Those ten syllables of the song's title are enough to say "We can toss a coin to decide where we will travel to.  That's how little I care about our destination, as long as I get to go there with you."  Just like that, the listener is caught up in the scenario.  How many country fans would love to have a romance so reckless and carefree that the two lovers would determine their travel destination with a simple flip of a coin?  This is a great example of how a strong hook can connect with audiences.

Here are a few more examples of my favorite hooks, with links to the accompanying songs:

"Don't be falling in love as she's walking away"

"Didn't you know how much I loved you?"

"When you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you/ You're gonna believe them"

"Always know that I will find a way to get to where you are/ Baby, there's no place that far"

"Whose bed have your boots been under?"

"Even if the whole world has forgotten/ The song remembers when"

"There's no use crying over spilled perfume"

"So God bless the boys who make the noise on 16th Avenue"

"The only time I wish you weren't gone/ Is once a day, every day, all day long"

"You walk by, and I fall to pieces"

Basically, this is my long-winded way of posing a few simple questions:  What would you say makes for a great hook?  What are some examples of songs with great hooks?  What is an example of a weak hook?

Leave a comment below with your answers to any of the above questions.  While we're thinking about this, what say we watch Jo Dee's "Heads Carolina, Tails California" video?  It's awesome!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Taylor Swift, "Mean"

By now, it should be a well-established fact that if you bite Taylor, she bites back - a fact which John Mayer, Joe Jonas, and many other songwriting subjects can no doubt attest to.  Over the course of her career, she has regularly been criticized for weak vocals, and sometimes off-key live performances, but with her new single "Mean," Taylor minces no words in letting the critics and 'haters' know exactly what she thinks of them.

It's no secret that "Mean" is largely inspired by the oft-heard claims that "Taylor Swift can't sing."  Indeed, Taylor directly addresses such naysayers in the third verse as she imagines a drunken critic "rambling on about how I can't sing."  But the song's overall focus goes beyond such criticism to address meanness in general.  Taylor describes the effect that cutting words have on her ("I walk with my head down tryin' to block you out, 'cause I'll never impress you"), analyzes the motives behind such cruel behavior ("I bet you got pushed around.  Somebody made you cold"), and vows to rise above it ("But the cycle ends right now, 'cause you can't lead me down that road").

The biting lyrics are crafted in such a way that just about anyone who's been rudely or disrespectfully treated can connect with them, even if we don't necessarily relate to Taylor's specific situation.  How many of us have been put down by someone bigger or more powerful?  Taylor doesn't sugarcoat her reactive sentiments - she cuts right to the chase with "All you are is mean."  Juvenile that may be, but when addressing behavior that is insulting and immature to begin with, that's really all that needs to be said.

As another plus, "Mean" earns points for a cool acoustic-based arrangement featuring generous amounts of fiddle, banjo, and mandolin.  The song stands out as the most uniquely country track on a largely pop-oriented album, and arguably Taylor's most country-flavored single release to date, and it will likely stand out among its company on country radio.  It's always good to see a popular mainstream artist stepping outside the box in a sense.  If any artist could get away with such a move, not losing radio airplay as a result, Taylor Swift would likely be one such artist.

Still, the real treat here is a smart set of deliciously contemptuous lyrics that serve as a universal reply to mean people everywhere.  Add a cool arrangement and a snarky spitfire of a lead vocal, and you get one heck of a mean single.  Pun intended.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"It Was a Fun Journey" - Interview with Brett Eldredge

Brett Eldredge made an immediate impression on fans and critics with his touching debut single “Raymond,” which told the story of a young man’s friendship with an elderly woman who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and who thought he was the son she had lost in death decades earlier. “Raymond” continues to climb the country singles chart, having just reached Top 30 status. In addition, Brett Eldredge has had the opportunity to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and has extended the invitation for his fans to share their own experiences with Alzheimer’s on his official web site, and to share how his song has affected them. In a recent interview, Brett discussed the inspiration behind his special song, as well as his connection to country fans and to the hallowed Grand Ole Opry.

Ben: Would you like to tell a little bit about your background, and what led to you making the decision to move to Nashville and to pursue a career in country music?

Brett: Yeah, I’m from Paris, Illinois, which is a tiny little town of about 9,000 people, about 4 ½ hours from Nashville. I lived there until I was about 18, and then I moved to Elmhurst, Illinois, to go to my first two years of college. I found myself in love with Nashville one time when I came to visit to see my cousin [Terry Eldredge] play – He’s a bluegrass musician in the Grascals. So I came down to see him down at the Station Inn, which is now my favorite venue still to this day. I got up there, and I sang a song with him. I was hooked. I’ve done a lot of different genres, and sung a lot of different stuff. My love was already country music, but when I got down here and saw that in the flesh, and got to hear the actual instrumentation and the fiddle and all that stuff, I was like ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ So I transferred schools down to MTSU, and I was like ‘I’m gonna go make this happen. I’m gonna figure out how to make this happen. I didn’t know what I was doing really; I just kind of showed up! I didn’t really know anybody. I got to Nashville and went to MTSU for college, and I’d go back and forth every day after class. I just started writing songs with people, and playing those songwriter night when there would be like two people there. It was a crazy, crazy experience. There was actually one time when my buddy’s dad came to visit, and it was just his dad in the crowd, and I was just playing these songs that I wrote, and I was just starting to figure out how to write songs. So I started to develop songs, and eventually signed a publishing deal. I just kept writing and eventually developing myself as an artist, and figuring out who I was. I was eventually showcased, and found myself a record deal. It was a fun journey so far.

Ben: So would you like to describe your songwriting process?

Brett: There’s no certain exact process that I do. Sometimes I’ll have a title or something that I’ll just write on this paper sitting here, like from the newspaper, or something I might hear in some kind of conversation that somebody had at the McDonald’s. There’s never an exact form that I follow. If I have a title, I might go and say “This is something I heard. This could be a cool title for a song.” I might write that, or I’ll just show up and start singing something, especially if it’s a co-write. You know, somebody’s sitting there playing something, and I’ll just start singing. I don’t even know what I’m singing. A lot of times people would laugh because it’s actually gibberish, and most of the time it is gibberish and I’ll start to put words with it. With some of it, it’s not like we’re going to record any of that gibberish. But sometimes on some of the work tapes and recordings, you can hear some of those random lyrics come out. But eventually we put real words to it, but it’s a fun thing. I love to write songs, and I still write songs all the time. I’ve got at least two hundred unfinished songs. On my phone, I’ve got a recorder, and I’ll just record something, and I’ve got a million of those that I’ll probably never ever listen to again, but maybe one day I’ll have a bored day on the airplane. I’ll hit PLAY on something and then all of a sudden I’ll have it back in my head, and I’ll start writing it. So it’s cool. I love songwriting.

Ben: Would you say that you’re a singer first, or a songwriter first?

Brett: I moved to town as a singer first. I still always want to be a singer first for sure. That’s how I grew up, and that’s how I started. That’s why I moved here. Then I discovered songwriting, and I discovered a whole other part – singing songs that you wrote, and being able to tell a story even more if you lived it, or had a part in making that song. Singing has always definitely been my passion, but now songwriting is too – a little bit of a combination of both, if that’s a fair answer.

Ben: Yeah, kind of like “Which wing does the bird like better?”

Brett: Yep!

Ben: So would you like to tell about the artists that have influenced your style the most?

Brett: Yeah, there’s a wide range of artists that I love. I love Ronnie Dunn, Brooks & Dunn. Ronnie Dunn’s voice – I just was captured by it. One of my favorite singers of all time. Frank Sinatra – huge fan of him and that whole generation. The way he phrased words and sang songs, you could believe everything he said. I’m a scholar for singers – I love those crooner kinds of guys. I love Ray Charles and Vince Gill. They’ve got this naturally God-given gift to feel, and sing their butts off. I love those kinds of singers.

Ben: Would you like to tell about the inspiration behind your current Top 30 hit “Raymond”?

Brett: It’s inspired by my grandmother who has Alzheimer’s. She still has Alzheimer’s now and has had it for several years. She was getting worse with it about three and a half years ago. That’s when I wrote this song. It was a call from my dad that sparked this idea to write this song. My dad called and said “Your grandmother’s starting to forget people in the family. She’s starting to slip up a little bit.” So I was torn up. She means the world to me. She’s the lady who cooked me fried chicken every Sunday, and just did everything for me. To hear that she was starting to lose some of who she was – It was killing me. I had to find some way to find comfort in the situation. A lot of times I go to songwriting. So I went and told a friend who I’d never met actually – He wasn’t even a friend at this point, Brad Crisler. I showed up, didn’t even know him, and I started telling him about the issue that was going on with my grandmother, which I never do. I’m not that kind of guy. I keep my family issues to myself. But I had to tell him, and he was taken in by the story. He had relatives in nursing homes growing up, and so did I, so it was just something that was so real to us. The song pretty much wrote itself at that point. We had both experienced it. We’d been there. All of a sudden it would just take off, and stuff would really start flowing out. We didn’t have an idea called “Raymond” anything. It just came. It was weird. It just came from some special place I guess. It only happens every once in a while as a songwriter, but when it does, you know it.

Ben: I understand you’ve also opened up the opportunity for your fans to share their own experiences with Alzheimer’s.

Brett: Yeah, on bretteldredge.com, my web site, there’s a little box where you can call. People can share their stories, and there will be a recording on my web site. People share their stories of how the song’s affected them or how Alzheimer’s affected them. It’s incredible how the song has touched certain people. A lot of times they’ve just got done listening to the song, and it’s crazy. They’re like already crying at the beginning. People are so passionate about it. They see it every day. A lot of people have Alzheimer’s, and live with it for a long time. You got to see that. So you hear the message of people that have the same struggles, and everybody’s in it together. It’s a big deal – 5.5 million people have Alzheimer’s. It’s like an epidemic now. So it’s crazy to see what kinds of people are getting affected by it. It’s a cool deal to hear their stories, and I enjoy that part of it, though I hate to hear it.

Ben: Would you like to also describe the creative process behind your music video for “Raymond”?

 Brett: The music video is a crazy concept. This is my first major video. I roll up in a parking lot, and there’s two huge trucks with forty people of a crew, and I was like ‘Is this for me? Is this how this works? Am I at the right place?’ But it was a really cool process making the video for “Raymond.” Shaun Silva shot it, and he’s an unbelievable director. He’s done a lot of Chesney videos and all that stuff, but he’s just a really talented guy at making it real. For making a music video, a lot of people have different ideas of how the video could go. He was the one that I felt really brought it home in capturing the kind of relationship we’re trying to capture with this song. In a lot of the video, you’re seeing me and the lady, Katherine Davis, talking. Shaun said “Talk about something from your childhood – some really emotionally special point in your life.” She started telling me about when she was a kid around Christmas and all that stuff. She got teary-eyed and crying, and I was getting teary-eyed. It was an emotional kind of moment, and so in a lot of the video that’s the kind of stuff we’re talking about. That’s how he made it feel real, and I felt a good relationship with her, so it was a cool thing.

Ben: Yeah, it really brings the song to life. Seeing as you made your Grand Ole Opry debut last year, would you like to tell about that experience, and about your connection to the Opry?

Brett: The Opry is country music. It’s a special place – a place that I had been trying to get to play for a long time. When I signed with the agency, I had no reason to be on the Opry yet, but I kept telling them I wanted to be on it. They were like ‘We’re working on it. We’ve got to get there at the right point.’ I finally heard that I got to do it, and I was just pumped. There’s nothing like it. It’s a special place, and there’s so much history behind it. I’m gonna go stand on the same circle that Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Elvis stood on – Elvis only one time, but he was there. So many people have been up there. To know that I was gonna do that was a special thing. So I got to bring my family, and Bill Anderson introduced me. He was a mentor of mine. The cool thing was I got to play a song that Bill and I wrote together. So all of it kind of came full circle. Literally, I walked out into the circle, and I saw my parents and grandfather and grandmother and brother and everybody. It was a special feeling. Though I was kind of nervous walking up – The closer I got to that circle, my heart beat a little faster. But once I got out in that circle and looked out in the crowd, I felt the warmth of the country music fans. They’re just so accepting, and I was home. I’ve played four times since, and I hope I get to play it for a long, long time.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Album Review: 77 El Deora - The Crown & the Crow's Confession

Maurice Tani and Jenn Courtney's 77 El Deora is a California-based alt-country band that has been amassing a loyal fan following with their distinctive vocals, well-crafted songs, and simple organic sound ever since the band's formation in 2004.  Maurice and Jenn share lead vocal duties, backed by Maurice on guitar, Mike Anderson on bass, Steve Kallai on violin, and Christopher Fisher on drums.  While their sound is a mixture of genre styles as opposed to straight-laced traditional country, 77 El Deora's lyrics are composed of the same themes that country music has always embraced.

The band's most recent project, The Crown & the Crow's Confession, offers many varying takes on the tried-and-true themes of love, loss, and heartache.  Guitarist/vocalist Maurice Tani takes writing or co-writing credit's on every track except for their version of Springsteen's "County Fair," which is reinterpreted as a duet backed by acoustic-based instrumentation.  The track ranks as one of the most romantic moments on the album.  Opening Track "I Just Dodged a Bullet" is a humorous satirical account of a tongue-in-cheek discussion between a couple who decide to end their relationship, neither party expecting the negative emotional consequences that are too follow.  In a duet performance, Maurice fills the man's role, with Jenn filling that of the woman.  The song culminates in the memorable hook, "I just dodged a bullet/ So where did this blood come from?"

The album has a good share of dark moments that couldn't be finer.  It is here in particular that Jenn Courtney often emerges as the recurring star of the show, with her full-throated voice creating the perfect mood for each song she performs.  Maurice's emotive vocals serve as the ideal counterpart.  A foremost example is found on the song "Rain," in which Jenn's smooth delivery envelops the gloomy melody against soft orchestral touches.  Maurice's harmony vocal joins hers in the chorus, as if filling the role of the departed lover the song's narrator longs for.

The Crown & the Crow's Confession is an album replete with highlights - not a single weak track in the bunch, closing with the engaging instrumental track "Cowboy."  Anchored by Maurice Tani's excellent songwriting, and full of dynamic spot-on performances, The Crown & the Crow's Confession is surely a gem worth seeking out.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Monday, March 7, 2011

Alison Krauss & Union Station, "Paper Airplane"

April 12 will mark the release of the first new Rounder Records studio album by Alison Krauss & Union Station since 2004's Lonely Runs Both Ways.  The title track, "Paper Airplane," is being offered as a free download to all who join the email list on Alison's official website.  Though the song is not being pushed as a radio single, you just might find it to be the best money you never spent.

There are plenty of things to love about this new track, though that doesn't necessarily come as any surprise.  Alison's shimmering lead vocal still has the same sweet angelic sound that has captivated listeners for over two decades.  Furthermore, when one's backing band consists of such seasoned and renowned bluegrass musicians as Jerry Douglas (dobro), Dan Tyminski (mandolin), Barry Bales (bass), and Ron Block (guitar), you can be sure that they will not disappoint.

The band's latest tune was penned by Robert Lee Castleman, whose material Alison has often recorded before (Think "Forget About It," "Let Me Touch You for Awhile, and "The Lucky One," the last of which won a Grammy for Best Country Song).  The song is described by Alison (in an interview with The Boot) as being about "going through a trying time, and knowing it will end, but at the moment you're in the middle of it."  Singing from the depths of despair, the song's character finds little to be positive about.  She ignores optimistic cliches that may be offered as a means of comfort.  The cloud may have a silver lining, but "every silver lining seems to have a cloud."  Ultimately, she concludes that "Love is like a paper airplane... riding high, dipping low."

If you could set loneliness to music, it would probably sound something like this.  Alison's melancholy delivery begins as a restrained whisper, but she lets her voice rise as she approaches the chorus.  Palpable hurt and emotion resonate from her voice throughout her performance.  "Innocence is fair game, but I'm hoping I can hold it in/ Our love will die I know," she sings as the song ends on an abrupt note, with her character feeling no need to temper her sentiments with any hint of a happy ending.

It's an understated truth to say that "Paper Airplane" is a beautifully written song.  Such a gem could not have fallen into more worthy hands than those of Alison Krauss & Union Station.  They've won more Grammy Awards than their arms can carry, and have come to be among the most well-known and respected names in modern bluegrass music, and one of the biggest reasons why is found in gorgeous performances just like this one.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Music Video Round-Up - March 2011

Zac Brown Band, "Colder Weather"

Very artistic.  The editing effects, especially the fact that the video is in black and white, really seems to fit with the mood of the song.  Well done.

Sarah Darling, "Something to Do with Your Hands"

It's hard not to use the word "cute" in describing this video. She's in love with a handyman, so she keeps intentionally breaking things to get him to spend time with her.

Darius Rucker, "This"

I like how this video shows Darius singing in the Ryman Auditorium.  Who doesn't love the good ol' Ryman?

Reba McEntire, "If I Were a Boy"

A definite improvement over the "Turn On the Radio" video.  Reba's simple yet elegant video for "If I Were the Boy" almost seems to lend the song more maturity in a way.  Great video!

Carter's Chord, "A Little Less Comfortable"

The Victorian-era setting makes an interesting visual element, and the storytelling is fantastic.

The Band Perry, "You Lie"

Some great performance footage, and another interesting setting similar to that of the Carter's Chord video.

Trace Adkins, "Brown Chicken Brown Cow"

The puppets were kind of cute, but I hate it when Trace tries too hard to be sexy.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The JaneDear Girls, "Shotgun Girl"

It's hard to tell what the point of this song is.  As far I can suspect, the only reason for this song's existence is to provide an image of a pickup truck, namecheck "Waylon, Willie, and Merle," and then to get to the cutesy "Yeah-eh-eh" hook.  The song merely paints a generalized picture of a typical stereotype, refusing to add anything new or interesting of its own.

It doesn't help that the Susie and Danelle's vocals on this track sound like they could be those of any karaoke wannabes randomly plucked off the street.  Their performance here is not only weak, but totally devoid of color and character.  Their vocal delivery is every bit as stale and boring as the song itself.

For a single to be truly great, it needs two things:  Great lyrics, and a great performance.  "Shotgun Girl" has neither.  There is nothing saving this single, so it just ends up one enormous dud.  Even if tone-deaf radio programmers spin it all the way to number one, it will still be a dud.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Album Review: Sara Evans - Stronger

The following review is a guest contribution by Stephen Fales

 Multi-platinum recording artist Sara Evans is well known for her impeccable country credentials. This farmer's daughter grew up singing and playing mandolin in her family's bluegrass band from the age of four, paid her dues covering country standards in honky tonks as a teenager, and was discovered and promoted by Harlan Howard himself. During the course of her 14-year professional career, Evans has managed to please critics and fans alike with the artful blend of traditional and contemporary sounds in her music.

 Now after an extended hiatus, Sara Evans is back with her sixth studio album, Stronger. Like a refreshing breeze sweeping over an arid musical landscape, Sara's warm and expressive voice is welcome relief, returning like an old friend. She sounds as glorious as ever, friendly and fun on the uptempo numbers like "Anywhere" and full of heartland pathos on ballads like "Alone," which seems to be on-deck for the next single.

Stronger took roughly two years to produce amidst several false starts, trial balloon singles that fell out of consideration, as well as some very worthy songs ("In the Pines" comes to mind) that didn't make the final cut. But the one song that should have been left on the cutting room floor unfortunately became the album's opener. "Desperately" is the weakest lead track from any of Sara's albums to date. The melody is forgettable, the lyrics trite and the overwrought production and bubblegum harmony sounds like something from the Partridge Family.

Fortunately, "Desperately" does not set the tone for the entire record, and the album just gets better from there - much better. The captivating title cut "A Little Bit Stronger" (as of this writing, a top 20 hit) has already garnered many fans from it's inclusion on the Country Strong movie soundtrack, but even this first single is not the strongest song on the record. That distinction is shared by the rollicking "Ticket to Ride", (not the Beatles' classic, but a brand new song co-authored by Evans and the great Leslie Satcher) and "What That Drink Cost Me."

On an album like Stronger there are many potential hit singles. But "Ticket to Ride" may well be the ultimate "worth the price of admission" song. It is a rebound love story that really takes flight, and Evans brings it home for a landing with finesse and a breathtaking vocal flourish at the end.

"What That Drink Cost Me" is a heart wrenching lament, a traditional sounding cautionary tale of the sometimes fatal risk of having one too many. "If you could put a price tag on everything that haunts me then you'd know, what that drink cost me."

Sara's homespun vocals serve her very well as she pours her country soul into nine worthy vessels. Her voice still has that fine wine flavor to it, and is a supple, nuanced and at times intoxicating instrument. As usual, she displays an artistically mature command of dynamics and nuance. The inherent rich and rustic textures of her voice work extremely well on the more traditional numbers as expected, but her vocal timbre is also very well suited to the more pop-oriented material such as her remake of Rod Stewart's "My Heart Can't Tell You No". Saturated with steel and drenched with sadness, the spell of Sara's wailing vocals transforms the Stewart classic is into a real country heartache song.

Stronger contains only 10 songs, but this quality-over-quantity approach works very well for the most part. This is a well-balanced, well-produced album thanks to Nathan Chapman, Tony Brown and to co-producer Sara Evans herself. It features a great mix of moods and tempos, as well as various country musical styles ranging from contemporary to neotraditional and bluegrass. And once again, Evans demonstrates what a capable songwriter she is, having co-written six of the ten tracks including some of the album's finest. Brother Matt Evans is also credited as a writing partner on three songs, including the delightfully electric and syncopated "Anywhere."

Stronger is a thoroughly enjoyable album and a most welcome return. It is a worthy addition to Sara's solid discography, but as great as it is, it doesn't really seem to advance the state of her art. Stronger seems to be a plateau album, but with Sara's usual high standard for excellence, at least the plateau is a lofty one. In this age of cookie-cutter songstesses, Sara Evans has carved out her own niche and coined her own unique sound, a distinctive blend of pop and pure country. Still, the hope remains that Sara will delve even more deeply into her pure country roots next time and harvest a great bluegrass or pure country album, something truly timeless and remarkable for her legacy. By digging deeper, there is little doubt that she could climb even higher.

Sara closes Stronger with a wonderful bluegrass remake of her signature classic "Born to Fly." This latest rendition is brilliant but overly percussive, and would have been even better with dueling fiddles blazing away for a fade-out finale that would have rivaled the awesome original. Still, this performance, like the album as a whole, is ample reminder that more than anything else Sara Evans was born to make great music.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)